9 December: Save The Date!

On 9 December 2016, the Bridging the Unbridgeable project will organise a usage guides symposium at the Leiden University Centre for Linguistics. Speakers will include Rebecca Gowers (author of the revised edition of Plain Words and of the recently published Horrible Words), … Continue reading

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The next Prescriptivism conference: 21-23 June 2017

Following the fourth conference on prescriptivism, which was held here at Leiden and co-organised by the Bridging the Unbridgeable project, the next one will be held at Park City, Utah, organised by Don Chapman from Brigham Young University.

The theme for the conference will be “Value(s) of Language Prescriptivism” and papers on any aspect of prescriptivism are invited. So SAVE THE DATE: 21-23 June 2017, and further details will be announced soon.

The book of the previous conference will be out by then. Find more information on the Multilingual Matters website.

Prescriptivism book

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“Use the active voice” – full stop

Here is one example of the effect which following up on Strunk and White’s linguistic advice may have (see last week’s blog post on this):

He spent a considerable portion of 1802 in Nellore collecting manuscripts, interviewing local Brahmins whom they considered accomplished poets, collecting information on local libraries and their contents, and finally translation work (p. 137).

(Thanks to my husband for the example.) They? Who are they in this context? The subject in the preceding clause is “he”, pronominalising Lakshmaya in the sentence before that. Is this the work of a copy-editor, alerted to a passive (“who were considered accomplished poets”) and applying Strunk and Whites dictum “The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive” (p. 18 in my copy)? (If so, he or she may have been pleased to be able to change the who into whom at the same time.)

Nearly five years ago I reported on a conference paper by the late Geoffrey Leech on this blog, called “Decline and (?)disappearance: The negative side of recent changes in Standard English”. The passive was one construction under threat according to Leech, which he attributed to the over-zealous application of prescriptive rules in popular (American) usage guides like Strunk and White. So, copy-editors at OUP’s New Delhi branch and elsewhere: keep the passives in, this will keep them alive and “vigorous”, but will stop us from making grammatical blunders in the first place.

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Strunk & White in our very own NRC-Handelsblad!

I don’t always read the Dutch writer Pia de Jong’s weekly column from the US in our paper, but last night, turning over the NRC, my eye was immediately drawn to the words Elements of Style: Strunk and White in NRC-Handelsblad, wow, a truly major event in Dutch newspaper writing. (Lovely image btw, Eliane Gerrits!)

In the article, Pia de Jong narrates how she received two (!) copies of the book as recent birthday presents, and enthusiastically reports on the useful writing advice she encountered in her reading of it. To be sure, Strunk and White is probably the most successful (in terms of publishing figures, that is!) usage guide of all times, but may we give you some serious advice here, Pia? Before you actually start implementing  what you find in the book in your writing, first read Geoffrey Pullum’s comments on the book. They may make you think twice – well, hopefully anyway.

Strunk&White in de NRC



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Fingers crossed, please!

A few weeks ago, I submitted our HUGE database as a candidate for the Nederlandse Dataprijs. By mid-September, the jury will nominate three potential winners, and we hope to be among them. What is more, we would really like to be included in the list of winners below, so do please keep your fingers crossed for us!


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“Basically … rather good”

Just decided to check up on the reception of Simon Heffer’s new (well, two years old by now) usage guide called Simply English, and found that Ben East, in The Guardian, described it as “basically … rather good”.  Interesting, in view of the rather substantial criticism this “journalist-turned-grammarian” as Ben East calls him, got on his earlier book Strictly English (2010). When confronted with this criticism in the online debate between usage experts “Between you and I the English language is going to the dogs” broadcast in 2014, Heffer seemed unaffected by what linguists like Geoff Pullum and David Crystal had said about his earlier book. So has anyone read Simply English yet, and is it indeed “rather good”?

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Frank Sinatra and prescriptivism

This summer, driving through France, one of the CDs we played was “The best of Frank Sinatra”. Singing along with his very popular “That’s Life” (1966), my attention was suddenly caught by his use of laying for lying: “Each time I find myself layin’ flat on my face …” (sung here a bit faster than on our own version). Ha! Would that be one of the reasons why lie/lay is the most treated usage problem in the usage guides in the HUGE database?

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9 December: preliminary programme

We have now drawn up a preliminary programme for the symposium on 9 December. Details about how to register will follow towards the end of July, beginning of August.

Symposium: Life after HUGE?


Rebecca Gowers, “Another One?”

Why I wanted to write Horrible Words. What I thought I was after. Certain ways in which I know the book failed. Other ways in which I hope it modestly succeeded. How some of the responsibility for all this can be laid at the feet of Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade, her colleagues and various of her PhD students. An undertaking never to try anything similar again.

Oliver Kamm, “Prescriptive Grammar: the Quest for Correctness”

Popular discussions of “grammar” are remote from the findings of modern language scientists. Yet pundits, politicians and journalists dominate these debates. Why do they exercise such sway when their message consists of little more than a list of arbitrary “rules” that were untrue even when they were devised? It has to do with antiquated notions of gentility and proper behaviour. Linguistic research is making belated inroads into education but has to constantly contend with popular worries about “incorrectness” in grammar and orthography. It’s a destructive opposition.

Harry Ritchie, “The Fearful Backwardness of the Natives”

Harry Ritchie describes the dreadful results in the English-speaking world of the continuing reign of prescriptivists and the complete ignorance of even the basics of linguistics. Rather than celebrating their linguistic expertise, native speakers  are taught to be ashamed of their English. Rather than celebrating dialect diversity, English-speakers are taught that only standard is correct, and any non-standard usage is inadequate or just wrong. The result is a perniciously effective and never-acknowledged system of linguistic discrimination, based on class in the UK, and class and race in the US.

Robin Straaijer, “Following Fowler: A birdseye view of the most influential English usage guide”

Last year, a book called Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (Butterfield 2015) was published. Written, or rather compiled, by a lexicographer at the Oxford English Dictionary, it is the fourth edition of Henry Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (Fowler 1926), or what we have come to know as ‘Fowler’. This latest edition, though still ‘a Fowler’, is understandably rather a different book than its ninety-year old original.

So how did we get there? I will take you through the various editions of the Dictionary of Modern English Usage and show how throughout its publication history it has been shaped by the development of the genre of usage guides, as well as how it influenced this process at the same time – not just in terms of content and methodology, but also in terms its wider place in the world.

I will show how other usage guide writers have been following Fowler: how the original Dictionary of Modern English Usage has changed the genre, since Fowler “is not just one in a long row of usage guides but a special case, and arguably the most influential usage guide throughout the 20th century” (Busse and Schröder 2010: 52) and has become “the generic model for prescriptive usage books” (Peters 2006: 763). Taking Butterfield’s new Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage as a jumping-off point, we will follow Fowler from book to institution to brand. I will illustrate how the content of ‘Fowler’ has changed with the times by showing some examples of usage problems drawn from the HUGE database (Straaijer 2014) and how they compare with Butterfield’s 2015 edition.

In addition, I will talk about one usage guide writer who followed Fowler: the American legal lexicographer Bryan Garner, who seems to have been actively branding himself as the American version of Fowler.


Busse, Ulrich, and Anne Schröder. 2010. “How Fowler Became ‘The Fowler’: An Anatomy of a Success Story.” English Today 26: 45–54. doi:10.1017/S0266078410000088.

Butterfield, Jeremy. 2015. Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fowler, Henry 1926. A Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Oxford: The Clarendon Press.

Peters, Pam. 2006. “English Usage: Prescription and Description.” In B. Aarts and A. McMahon (eds) The Handbook of English Linguistics (759-780). Oxford: Blackwell.

Straaijer, Robin. 2014. The Hyper Usage Guide of English (HUGE) database. Leiden University. http://huge.ullet.net.

Lyda Fens-de Zeeuw, “The HUGE presence of Lindley Murray”

The grammarian Lindley Murray (1745–1826), by all accounts, was the author of the best-selling grammar book of all times. Not surprisingly, therefore, his work was submitted to severe criticisms by competitive grammarians and authors of usage guides, who may have considered that Murray’s success could negatively influence the sales figures for their own books.

The HUGE database comprises 77 usage guides from 1770 until 2010. I decided to find out in which of those guides Murray is referred to and more specifically, how his views on the dos and don’ts of the English language are dealt with by their authors.

Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade, “Creating an online usage (guide) community”

Abstract to follow

Carmen Ebner, Viktorija Kostadinova, Morana Lukač: presenting their research findings

Proceedings to be published in a special issue of English Today.

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